In early December 2018, Tumblr announced its plans for “a better, more positive Tumblr.” These “positive” changes to Tumblr came in the form of an all-out ban on adult content. Specifically, Tumblr tells users in their community guidelines: “Don’t upload images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples … Don’t upload any content, including images, videos, GIFs, or illustrations, that depicts sex acts.”
The ban, which took effect on Dec. 17, goes against everything Tumblr has been about since its conception in 2007. Tumblr has historically been an open and safe community: a place for promoting body and sex positivity and for often marginalized groups to connect over shared experiences. In Tumblr’s announcement, they claim that the site is still a place for this type of discourse, but the ability to post “adult content” is what made Tumblr such a positive place to begin with. Young women and members of the LGBTQI+ community came to Tumblr because it was an online space where they could explore sexuality in a safe and judgment-free environment.
There are exceptions to the ban, which include images of or immediately after giving birth, breastfeeding, plus “certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity.” So you can post an image of a Free the Nipple rally, but you can’t actually free the nipple on Tumblr’s platform.
This brings us to one of the more problematic aspects of Tumblr’s new policy: the specific language banning “female-presenting nipples.” Tumblr claims the site can still be a place for body positivity, but how can it be when the site now bans a whole part of women’s bodies? If Tumblr truly thinks they can ban “female-presenting nipples” and still promote body positivity, they’re really kidding themselves. When it comes down to it, a specific ban on “female-presenting nipples” is just blatantly sexist. It’s punishing women for simply having bodies. It’s moving backward when society should be moving forwards. And, perhaps most alarmingly, it’s reinforcing centuries of shame and tells women there is something inherently sexual, dirty and wrong with their bodies.
Users were understandably outraged by the “female-presenting nipples” distinction in the policy. Tumblr addressed this concern in their clarification post with a flippant “yeah, we know you hate this term” signed with a “<3”. They acknowledged users feelings, invalidated those feelings and told users to move on in just seven words.
Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio defended the ban by stating, “There are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content.” You’re right Jeff, strictly pornographic sites exist, but the content on those sites is completely different from what people shared on Tumblr. Most mainstream and free porn sites cater to straight, cisgendered men and show a narrow range of body types. Tumblr was a space where women could find empowering examples of pornography that focused on the female perspective and female pleasure, a sharp contrast to most mainstream porn sites.
Plus, the ability to see adult content alongside other content was what made Tumblr so unique and powerful as a platform. Sexuality and naked bodies, in general, aren’t something we should be ashamed of. These things are part of our daily lives, the same as eating, breathing and sleeping. The ability to see images of coffee, someone in the bathtub, people doing yoga, sunsets and illustrations of adults participating in consensual sexual activity all in one place was powerful. Tumblr keeps saying “help us continue to shape Tumblr into the community you want it to be.” But what people want Tumblr to be is a place for radical self-love and positivity, which is sadly no longer possible.
What makes the ban even worse is just how awful the execution has been. The algorithm Tumblr designed to catch all of those terrifying images of “female-presenting nipples” has flagged a ridiculous amount of posts it shouldn’t have. The algorithm is almost hilariously bad at its job, flagging posts of dinosaur drawings and crocheted candles, and it ironically includes Tumblr’s own post containing examples of content which is still allowed. There’s also the glaring issue of subjectivity. When the algorithm flags a post, users can appeal the flag, which is then reviewed by an actual human. But who at Tumblr is deciding what images are artistic enough to not be flagged? Who is deciding at what point the body of someone taking hormone replacement therapy suddenly becomes too “female-presenting” to be allowed, and vice versa?
Obviously, Tumblr is a private institution and has the right to police the content on their platform in any way they choose. However, this new policy feels like an infringement on the freedom of expression. There are even bigger implications for artists and sex workers who previously used to the site to sell images and make a living. A ban like this could even kill Tumblr. Livejournal is a great example of a platform that all but died when users fled after a ban on adult content. Ironically, most of Livejournal’s users went to Tumblr. The trouble this time is, where will people be able to go now?